A few minutes after midnight on January 9, 1997, several men burst into an apartment during a party in Marin City, California.
Gunfire erupted and 20-year-old Ronald Small was fatally shot.
Police interviewed numerous people who were at the party and received varying accounts—some of which were recanted later—because witnesses were afraid or too intoxicated to be reliable. Some of them said one of the men had been well over six feet tall.
Ultimately, police concluded that Small had been murdered in retaliation for allegedly of stealing $2,500 worth of marijuana from the apartment of the girlfriend of Joseph Alard Michel. According to police, in the days leading up the murder, Michel had confronted Small and struck him in the head with a pistol. In response, not long after, Small allegedly fired a gun at Michel.
Police began focusing on Michel. One witness said that Darrell Hunter, who was 6 feet, 5 inches tall, associated with Michel. Police then learned that Hunter, 22, had been paroled in December 1996 after serving a prison term for a narcotics conviction and they brought him in for questioning.
In the interview, Marin County Sheriff’s Office detectives said they were investigating an incident in Marin City. Hunter said he had been home taking care of a brother on the night of the shooting. Informed he was a suspect, Hunter said he had not been in Marin County for two years.
The officers then put him under arrest for violation of parole because they suspected he was involved in the shooting.
During subsequent interviews, Hunter told a number of lies, but eventually said he knew Michel, had seen him with guns—some of which were the type and caliber used in the shooting—and that he could give police “the entire case on a silver platter,” but he wanted immunity or a plea to manslaughter.
When prosecutors refused to provide a written agreement, Hunter refused to speak to the detectives any further.
Several people, some of whom were at the party and some of whom were outside the party, identified Hunter in photographic lineups as one of the men who burst into the apartment. Hunter was charged with murder, burglary, false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a firearm. Michel was charged as well, but fled. Two other men also were charged, but the charges were later dismissed for lack of evidence.
Hunter went on trial in Marin County Superior Court in September 1999. Jury selection was completed by the end of October and testimony began on November 2. No physical or forensic evidence linked him to the crime.
The trial was a chaotic event, with witnesses claiming they feared for their lives, recanting previous identifications and then recanting their recantations. At least five witnesses identified Hunter, whether before the grand jury, at the preliminary hearing or in court, but they gave different accounts of what happened, and only some of them claimed that the man they identified as Hunter had fired any shots.
Hunter testified on his own behalf and admitted that he had lied to police about his whereabouts on the night of the shooting. He said that after he was released from prison, he began spending time with Michel and learned that Michel was angry at Small.
Hunter said he accompanied Michel to Marin City on the night of the murder where they met some other men. At one point, one of the men urged Michel to take care of the problem. Another counseled that he if went after Small, everyone would know he was responsible because of their prior altercations.
Hunter testified that he went with Michel and the others to the building where the party was being held, saw them go inside, and then heard gunshots. He said his only role that night was “trying to stop something from happening when I seen it happening.” He said Michel was a “loose cannon” who “turned into an instant killer” and that he had tried his best to control him.
After a four month trial, Hunter was convicted by a jury on February 2, 2000. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole with a consecutive sentence of 16 years and four months.
He was granted a new trial in 2005 after a judge found that a juror at his trial had given misleading responses during jury selection.
Hunter went on trial a second time in January 2008.
Hunter’s lawyers at the retrial, Gary Dubcoff and Jennifer Schwartz, presented new evidence regarding a revolver that was found outside the building after the shooting. Witnesses said the revolver resembled a gun they saw in Hunter’s hand, but gun bore a palm print that was not Hunter’s.
Witnesses said the gunman held the gun in his right hand; his lawyers now presented evidence that Hunter was left-handed. They also called a police procedures expert who testified that the photo lineup shown to the witnesses who selected Hunter was flawed because Hunter was wearing prison garb, while most of the others were not. They also presented an expert on eyewitness testimony as well as a police procedures expert who was harshly critical of the manner in which the crime scene was processed.
On April 30, 2008, Hunter was acquitted by a jury and released.
Michel was arrested in Germany in 2004 and eventually extradited back to the United States. A month after Hunter was acquitted, Michel pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 11 years and eight months in prison.
– Maurice Possley